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The urgency of educational reforms

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  • Shaji John K
    The urgency of educational reforms Krishna Kumar The Hindu Friday, Jun 01, 2007 The quality of education is a reflection of the quality of teachers. Major
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      The urgency of educational reforms

      Krishna Kumar

      The Hindu
      Friday, Jun 01, 2007



      The quality of education is a reflection of the quality of teachers.
      Major improvements in their training and working conditions will
      determine how India fares in the pursuit of economic and social
      development in the years to come.

      SIXTEEN YEARS ago, the author of Swami and Friends, the late R.K.
      Narayan, delivered his maiden speech in the Rajya Sabha on how
      stressed our children feel at school. The Yash Pal report, Learning
      without Burden, which followed Narayan's plea for urgent action
      remained largely unheeded for more than a decade, until the
      discussions held for drafting the National Curriculum Framework (NCF
      2005) brought it back into currency. The main idea conveyed in the
      Yash Pal report was that our children don't get a chance to enjoy
      learning at school because the syllabi are irrationally organised,
      teaching is textbook-centred, and the system of examinations instils
      fear and encourages cramming. The new syllabi of the National Council
      of Education Research and Training, prepared on the basis of the NCF,
      use the psychology of learning and the importance of utilising
      resources available in children's own milieu as organising principles
      for teaching different subjects. The Council's re-conceptualised
      syllabi also attempt to integrate positive values, attitudes,
      life-skills, aesthetic sensibility, and concern for the environment in
      each subject, thus reversing the trend towards fragmentation of the
      curriculum. The new textbooks developed in accordance with these
      syllabi are interactive and enjoyable and they make a conscious effort
      to point both children and their teachers towards other sources of
      learning, such as nature, the neighbourhood, and other books. Even as
      this gigantic effort unfolds at the level of the NCERT and at least in
      two other States, namely Bihar and Kerala, two parallel challenges
      deserve urgent attention.

      The first is examination reforms. Rigidity and indifference towards
      individual differences are among the several weaknesses of the present
      examination system. That the system ignores creativity and discourages
      independent thought is also well known. The unrealistically high
      cut-offs for admission to coveted colleges are a sign of systemic
      inefficiency. From the quality of questions asked in examinations, to
      the manner in which evaluation takes place, all aspects of the
      examination procedure testify to the system's inability to distinguish
      drilled preparedness (`hard work' in popular parlance) from the
      capacity to think afresh, to find solutions to problems of one's
      interest. It is hardly surprising that the very thought of examination
      makes the young nervous and depressed. The National Focus Group (NFG)
      on examination reforms, appointed in the context of NCF 2005, analysed
      the numerous problems associated with centralised public examinations
      taken at the end of Class X and XII, and gave a set of
      recommendations. Perhaps the most important among these are the ones
      concerned with the design of question papers and the quality of the
      questions asked. The NFG report criticises the practice of splitting
      unified topics into arbitrary bits carrying small marks-value.
      Practices like these encourage teachers to concentrate on `scoring'
      topics, overlooking the importance of perspective and overall
      understanding. The NFG report also criticises short-answer type
      questions on the ground that they encourage cramming and result in
      high scores that don't necessarily signify the capacity to think or to
      solve unfamiliar problems. The NFG report recommends a judicious mix
      of well-designed multiple-choice questions (MCQs) and open-ended
      questions in order to test the student's capacity for reflection on
      alternatives and expression.

      These and other recommendations of the NFG require urgent action on
      the part of different State Boards, and the Central Board of Secondary
      Education (CBSE) must take the lead. The Council of Boards of School
      Education (COBSE) has taken a keen interest in NCF-based reforms, but
      concrete plans have yet to emerge for any implementation of
      significant examination reforms. Reluctance to include imaginatively
      designed MCQs and the inclusion of some open-ended questions is
      explained by referring to logistical factors like storage space and
      the quality of available evaluators. It is far from clear whether we
      can hope for better quality question papers in next year's board
      exams. Even the better boards — and the CBSE is no exception — seem
      reluctant to move away from traditional questions based on
      artificially separated categories like `knowledge,' `understanding,'
      `application,' and `skill.' It is no surprise that many elite schools
      are beginning to opt for the International Baccalaureate, not just
      because it offers status, but also because this system respects
      individual differences and allows flexibility. If our Boards do not
      improve, we can expect the divisive character of the system to grow
      further as a result of the high-fee charging schools moving towards
      alternative, global certification.

      The second area deserving immediate attention is that of teacher
      training. Apart from rampant commercialisation, teacher training
      suffers from backward and obsolete notions underpinning most B.Ed.
      programmes. Most teachers are trained mainly to cover the syllabus in
      a mechanical, exam-oriented manner. Teachers actively promote a
      Darwinian ethos in the classroom in which the child who wants to take
      time to observe or do something to his satisfaction is ridiculed. Let
      alone a child suffering from a disability, anyone who is slightly
      `behind' the rest is hastily labelled as a `slow learner.' By
      insisting that everyone should move at the same pace in all subjects,
      teachers encourage rote methods and drilling. The training given to
      teachers fails to impart the ability to distinguish the curriculum
      from the syllabus and textbooks. It is a commonly held view that the
      prescribed textbook is the de facto syllabus. Instead of focussing on
      making subject knowledge accessible to children through the active
      experience, the teacher merely elucidates the textbook. Even in
      primary classes, where we ought to conserve resources and use
      textbooks sparingly, teachers feel handicapped if every child does not
      bring all the textbooks to school everyday.

      The attempt to regulate teacher education through statutory provisions
      has not worked. The recent move made by the Ministry of Human Resource
      Development to recognise the academic character of teacher education
      is in the right direction. This step implies a stronger bonding
      between all teacher education programmes — irrespective of the age
      groups that they serve — and universities. Teacher training needs to
      be embedded in general undergraduate education as has happened in the
      case of Delhi University's path-breaking B.El.Ed. course and the
      NCERT's integrated B.Ed. course, the latter of which has concentrated
      on science but is likely to be broadened in the future. What is
      special about the B.El.Ed. course is its capacity to develop the
      teacher's personality and perspective on society by linking subject
      learning and pedagogy with reflective and creative project work. The
      course also avoids the rigid lesson-plans traditionally associated
      with the B.Ed., which focus on the delivery of subject knowledge
      rather than children's own attempts to make sense of it.

      The quality of all teachers, whether they work in a nursery or a
      senior secondary school, will depend on the initiatives that
      universities and institutes of advanced learning (such as Indian
      Institutes of Management and Indian Institutes of Technology) will
      take in improving the content of teacher training courses. In India we
      have been reluctant to recognise this simple fact even though it was
      pointed out by the Kothari Commission 40 years ago. Asking Indian
      universities to serve as the "conscience of the nation," the
      Commission suggested that they should take up the responsibility "to
      assist the schools in their attempts at qualitative
      self-improvements." Had the Kothari recommended been heeded,
      university and college campuses would be abuzz during summers with
      school teachers taking advanced courses in their subjects. Kothari
      wanted universities to exemplify a culture of tolerance for dissent,
      to serve the larger community by giving adult education courses and to
      run pace-setting experimental schools. Viewed in the light of these
      expectations, the scene looks uninspiring as we listen to the news
      from M.S. University, Baroda.

      In the context of Kothari's suggestion regarding the involvement of
      universities in training school teachers, it is sad to notice how
      desolate and quiet our university campuses appear during the summer
      vacations. This deserted character also conceals an enormous waste of
      infrastructure and expertise. Forty years later, surely our
      universities could belatedly decide to act on the Kothari report and
      initiate programmes for in-service training of school teachers, apart
      from overhauling the B.Ed. courses. A parallel programme to improve
      the working conditions of school teachers will have to be undertaken
      to motivate the young to perceive teaching as a fulfilling career. Let
      us recall that the quality of education is a reflection of the quality
      of teachers. Major improvements in their training and working
      conditions will determine how India fares in the pursuit of economic
      and social development in the years to come.

      (The author is Director of the NCERT.)
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